Symbolism in the Great Gatsby

Essay on three symbols used in the book The Great Gatsby – Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, Valley of Ashes, and time.

In literature, symbolism is the most common technique that authors use to give a deeper meaning to ordinary objects or events. Audience can often convey important messages and themes of the work from symbols that has been repeatedly presented. One great example of symbolism being used to convey these messages is The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this work, Fitzgerald criticizes the role of money in society. Through the use of symbols such as time, Valley of Ashes, and Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, Fitzgerald portrays the American society as a corruption agent of materialistic wealth.

Fitzgerald uses time to emphasize the correlation between love and money. Throughout the book, time has been a major factor in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. Gatsby desperately tried to cling on to feelings of the past, at one point he exclaims: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” (116). It seems that Gatsby cannot grasp the concept that time changes everything, including people; and that the Daisy he see today is no longer the same as the Daisy that he used to love. Time has erases Daisy’s love for Gatsby and replaced it with a realistic desire to fit in with society through her marriage to Tom Buchanan. During the first reunion between Gatsby and Daisy, Fitzgerald describes Gatsby as having “his head leaned back so far that it rested against the fact of a defunct mantelpiece clock” (87). The act of leaning against a defunct clock, which represents time, can be interpreted as Gatsby using time as support; yet time, in turn, has failed him. Ever since meeting Daisy, Gatsby has tried desperately to become wealthy and be a good match for Daisy; over time he succeed his dream of attaining the money, but over time, he lost Daisy. Since “Time is money”, Fitzgerald is criticizing how people are unconsciously allowing money to interfere with their lives, and even worse: their love.

By describing the Valley of Ashes as a dumpster for modern industrial wastes, Fitzgerald demonstrates the decay in human values that results from the competition for wealth. When Fitzgerald first introduces the audience to this waste land, the audience was immediately struck with its peculiar feature: “This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat” (26). Farm is a source of food; and food is a source of life; by replacing food with industrial ashes, Fitzgerald eludes to how modernization is beginning to turn people away from humane characteristics. This point is further supported later in the story when Nick said: “Gatsby is reclaimed by the living dead, by George Wilson, the agent of the Valley of Ashes as well as the agent of Gatsby’s death.” (73). Indirectly, Fitzgerald clarifies that Gatsby did not die because of George Wilson the person, but rather because of George Wilson the agent of Valley of Ashes. George Wilson is a man who lives in this dumpster of industrial wastes, and he killed Gatsby, a wealthy man of a modern industrialized society. This is symbolic of how the production of wealth and money bring decay and death to Jay Gatsby. This can be seen as a punishment from a higher power that is unhappy with the path that humankind is taking.

Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes represent the higher power that oversees the upper class society as the root of ethical and moral corruption. Driving through the Valley of Ashes, the narrator noted: “The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which passes over a non-existent nose” (23). The fact that Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes is watching over Valley of Ashes and not East Egg or West Egg could mean that God is only watching and protecting the poor people living there who are not yet corrupted. It could also mean that God is watching over the utter destruction by money and he plans on punishing the people who causes it. Either way, this is yet another important symbol that contributes to forming the themes and motifs of the story. It is also ironic that the Doctor’s glasses are yellow. Yellow is the color of gold; and gold is a sign of wealth. One way to look at this detail is that Dr. Eckleburg is watching over the Valley of Ashes through gold lenses, or through views of the upper class and money holders, so it could also mean that God himself is being affected by this notion of wealth and his view is also being altered by gold. Once again, towards the end of the story, George Wilson “was looking at the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night” just before he went to Gatsby’s home to kill him. Since Wilson represents the poor, and Gatsby represents the rich; the fact that Wilson was motivated and convinced that those eyes, representing God, told him to kill Gatsby means that God is punishing the rich for their corruption.

Throughout the story, Fitzgerald repeatedly emphasizes the point that money is slowing taking over society as a whole, causing ethical and moral decay in the people. This is an important issue to consider because on a global scale, humankind is producing more than they can consume. Yet, there is still millions of people worldwide suffering from hunger and from lacking essential needs. Modernization was meant to improve living standards, but it has brought along the negative effect of people losing themselves in luxurious lifestyles, always wanting more. Capitalism’s ideal is to protect the people’s right to succeed and achieve the American Dream; its ideal rest upon the notion of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in the pursuit of happiness via materialistic desires, people are losing their ability to be freed from irresistible luxuries.

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  1. Linda
    Posted October 15, 2008 at 5:37 am

    Loved it! very informitive with less big fancy vocab!!!

  2. Dee
    Posted April 5, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    This was highly informative and helped me understand many of the key elements of the novel better . Well written .

  3. sammy
    Posted April 10, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    it was great it helped a lot with my paper i have to write

  4. bahaha
    Posted May 21, 2009 at 9:13 am

    it was totallly sweet
    i didn’t know yellow was the color of gold!!!!

  5. bob
    Posted June 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm


  6. Coidlyn
    Posted June 8, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Could use a little bit more editing (little muddy, and unlcear), but great use of ideas and concepts.
    Good job.

  7. Posted December 11, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Good job to whoever wrote this. This really helped me understand the symbols of the story. Don’t let the other a$$holes tell you differently. Thanks again!

  8. Posted December 11, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Good job to whoever wrote this. This really helped me understand the symbols of the story. Don\’t let the other a$$holes tell you differently. Thanks again!

  9. Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:02 am

    I’m not a professional writer so my papers are not top-notch. But I’m glad it helped ^_^

  10. Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    it was very informative i think that the symbolism was very clear except for the part where it tlks bout time having a coralation with money and love gatsby never had both at once and slightly disagree with the statement

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